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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2017

A Look at the Real Stanley Milgram: An Interview With Robert Rosenthal, PhD

Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer/Journal Managing Editor
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How did Dr. Stanley Milgram convince many of his research participants to use electric shocks in order to repeatedly punish a different participant for failing to answer test questions? The answer is disturbing in itself: He simply told the participants to do so.
Of course, unknown to the participants at the time, the shocks were not real because the individual being “shocked” out of view in the next room was actually a trained confederate. And yet, the participants causing the “shocks” often continued to do so, each time at a higher voltage, long after the confederate began banging on the wall and shouting for the shocks to stop. In fact,  Dr. Milgram convinced many participants to keep administering the “shocks,” even after the confederate became disturbingly quiet, as if he might have passed out or worse.
The purpose of the Milgram experiment was to determine how often people will abandon their ideas of right and wrong to obey an authority figure, who in this case was Dr. Milgram, the experimenter. In other words, it was in many ways an attempt to explain atrocities like the Holocaust and My Lai massacre. The latter of which, by the way, did not take place until five years after the Milgram experiment and was committed by U.S. soldiers.
However, after Dr. Milgram’s results were published in 1963, his work was soon met with criticism and outrage due to the fact that it exposed people to their own lack of resistance to obedience to authority. That, many say, was something participants should have been entitled to decide for themselves, whether they wanted to learn about or not. Even to this day, the Milgram experiment remains a hotly discussed topic in Intro to Psychology courses and other mediums all around the world. Most recently, it was featured in the 2015 film, Experimenter, which can be viewed on Netflix or purchased at
Was Dr. Milgram as unethical as many have made him out to be? To provide a new perspective on this popular question, we are delighted to interview Psi Chi Distinguished Member Dr. Robert Rosenthal. A renowned expert on the role of self-fulfilling prophecy in everyday life and in laboratory situations, Dr. Rosenthal was a colleague and friend of Dr. Milgram’s at Harvard from around 1963 to 1967.
Meeting Milgram
Dr. Rosenthal viewed the new Experimenter film for the first time during a Psi Chi chapter event at the University of California, Riverside, last spring. The film’s depiction of the experiment was portrayed fairly accurately, he says, and there was nothing out of place about the settings used in the film such as the scenes at Harvard. However, as for the portrayal of Dr. Milgram, he notes little physical or psychological similarity.
Stanley, he explains, was actually a somewhat “quirky” individual, though not at all in a bad way. For example, he says, “I will always remember our unforgettable first interaction. We were walking down the hall toward each other when he stopped right in front of me, said ‘Heil Hitler’, and stuck his arm up in the air.”
Like anyone, Dr. Rosenthal thought that this was bizarre, but he eventually deciphered the deeper meaning behind this greeting. He says, “Stanley was very much a refugee from Hitler, indirectly at least, and so was I. I was born in Nazi Germany, and we both sort of got out ‘by the skin of our teeth.’ My later interpretation of that odd ‘Heil Hitler’ was Stanley, communicating so symbolically, saying, ‘Isn’t this something! You and I are here. We’re Harvard professors. They tried to kill us, but we made it. They didn’t.’ With hindsight, it was a very informative thing.”
Precautions Taken, Before and After
It was not long after that first meeting when an article was published in the American Psychologist by Dr. Diana Baumrind. “It was very critical of Stanley’s work,” Dr. Rosenthal says. “And so I kind of served as a sounding board for Stanley as he was composing his reply to that article. He certainly didn’t need my help in doing that, but it was good for him to have someone who really cared about him and his future, so I was very eager to participate. Although I didn’t write any word of it, I was there, which helped me get to understand and like Stanley more.”
“I think he felt hurt,” Dr. Rosenthal says about the criticism, “because he had actually gone to great lengths to consider these ethical considerations. To determine the professional landscape about any danger to the participants, he had spoken to psychiatrists to describe his experiment and to find out whether there would be any long-term consequences in participating in this experiment. These professionals had assured him that this would not be the case, and so he thought that it would be okay to proceed.”
According to Dr. Rosenthal, Dr. Milgram was also a very thorough debriefer, who went out of his way to conduct what he called a “friendly reconciliation” after the experiment was over. “During that time, research participants would get to meet the so-called-victim to show participants that no harm had been done.”
Lights, Camera, Action!
Dr. Rosenthal sees Stanley as “showman” as they would say in the old days. “He knew how to stage things. And when you look closely at the design of his famous obedience experiment, you can kind of see the imaginativeness such as all of the little knobs where participants could click on an increasing voltage level. His role as the organizing psychologist director of the Milgram lab was kind of similar to the role that a movie director might play. In some ways, his experiment was more in the arts and humanities parts of colleges than in the science parts. I don’t mean that it wasn’t good science—it was very good science. But he staged it so beautifully.”
By Dr. Rosenthal’s estimation, “If someone tried to replicate the experiment without reading exactly how the staging was set up, I don’t know that the results would be quite the same. Stanley was really a professional Broadway type, who really knew how to make a setting work. So the average person wouldn’t have come up with a whole play as beautifully as Stanley designed it.”
Friendly Reconciliation
Dr. Milgram and Dr. Rosenthal both had five-year terms at Harvard at around the same time. However, when their terms were almost up, a single permanent position became available in social psychology. “Stanley was in social psychology, and I was in clinical psychology. But instead of Stanley, I got the job,” Dr. Rosenthal says. “This was as big of a surprise to me as it was to anybody else because I wasn’t even in that field. I had never taken a graduate course in social psychology, although my research was social psychological.”
Dr. Rosenthal accepted the position and recalls when Stanley found out during the last few days of his stay at Harvard. “He came up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘I don’t think you’re the best social psychologist in the world.’ ”
In response, Dr. Rosenthal said to him, ‘I agree with you, Stanley. I think you are.” That was absolutely the truth, he adds all these years later. “I really thought he was the social psychologist. I don’t know why he didn’t get the job. There was scuttlebutt that members of the so-called-permanent members group who would make the hiring decisions didn’t like his research on ethical grounds.”
“He and I had a friendly reconciliation of our own a few years after he left Harvard,” Dr. Rosenthal says, fondly. “Not long after he went to the City University of New York, he invited me to come give a talk, so I did. And that evening, he took my wife and me to his apartment in Riverdale; we had a really nice dinner with him and his wife.”
Why the Milgram  Experiment Matters
An hour into the Experimenter film, a television interviewer asks the Milgram character why his book about the experiment still “feels like new.” Today, we asked Dr. Rosenthal the same question.
His response: “It continues to address the issue of what humans can be driven to do because of their blind obedience to legitimate authority. Whether someone thinks a thing is right or wrong in their own system of values can be kind of set aside if an instruction comes from a legitimate authority. So things like the My Lai massacre, which was talked about many years later, still apply within the context of Dr. Milgram’s research. These were military organizations where people did what their higher ranked officer told them to do whether it was right or wrong because they were obedient to authority. The issue has not gone away; I am sure that it is alive and well today.”
Dr. Milgram directed a film called Obedience in 1962, which provides genuine footage from the experiment of participants continuing to deliver shocks at higher and higher levels of electricity, simply because they were told to go on because the experiment demanded that. The details shown on that film, Dr. Rosenthal believes, go a long way to reassure most people that the participants didn’t leave the lab feeling that they had harmed anybody, although they might have felt that they learned something about themselves that they didn’t like. Today,  Dr. Rosenthal encourages you to check out that film too, and consider the ethicality of the study for yourself.
Would it be okay to conduct the Milgram experiment again? Definitely not. But does the whole world need to have a “friendly reconciliation” with Dr. Milgram for the work he conducted at the time? We’ll leave that up to you.

Robert Rosenthal, PhD, is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, Emeritus of Harvard University. Professor Rosenthal’s research has centered for over 50 years on the role of the self-fulfilling prophecy in everyday life and in laboratory situations. Special interests include the effects of teacher’  expectations on students’ academic and physical performance, the effects of experimenters’ expectations on the results of their research, and the effects of clinicians’ expectations on their patients’ mental and physical health. For some 50 years, he has been studying the role of nonverbal communication in (a) the mediation of interpersonal expectancy effects and in (b) the relationship between members of small work groups and small social groups. He also has strong interests in sources of artifact in behavioral research and in various quantitative procedures. In the realm of data analysis, his special interests are in experimental design and analysis, contrast analysis, and meta-analysis. His most recent books and articles are about these areas of data analysis and about the nature of nonverbal communication in teacher—student, doctor-patient, manager-employee, judge-jury, and psychotherapist—client interaction. He was cochair of the Task Force on Statistical Inference of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Rosenthal has received several awards including the Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement from the American Psychological Foundation, James McKeen Cattell Award from the American Psychological Society, and Distinguished Scientific Award for Applications of Psychology from the American Psychological Association, and most recently, Distinguished Member of Psi Chi.



Copyright 2017 (Vol. 22, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


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